Sunday, 28 September 2014

Born In Chains: Leonard Cohen and Jesus

I have been a big fan of Leonard Cohen, the Canadian singer/songwriter and poet, since my early teen years, and still am. I love the man. Since coming to faith in Jesus, it has occurred to me that there are many references to Christ in Cohen's music, some explicit and some subtle. I get the feeling that to Cohen Jesus is a part of his Jewish heritage and spiritual world and a presence in his thoughts as opposed to someone alien or threatening. Perhaps this is related also to his French Canadian influences growing up. On Cohen's new album there is a stunningly beautiful song of praise and contemplation with unmistakeable Christian resonances as well as the obvious Jewish ones. Before I share a direct quote from Cohen on Yeshua, here is the song:

Born In Chains

1. I was born in chains but I was taken out of Egypt
I was bound to a burden but the burden it was raised
Lord I can no longer keep this secret
Blessed is the Name, the Name be praised

2. I fled to the edge of the mighty sea of sorrow
pursued by the riders of a cruel and dark regime
but the waters parted and my soul crossed over
out of Egypt, out of Pharaoh's dream

3. Word of words, measure of all measures
Blessed is the Name, the Name be blessed
Written on my heart in burning letters
That's all I know, I cannot read the rest

4. I was idle with my soul when I heard you could use me
I followed very closely but my life remained the same
But then you showed me where you had been wounded
in every atom, broken is the Name

5. I was alone on the road then your love was so confusing
All my teachers told me I had myself to blame
but in the grip of sensual illusion
this sweet unknowing unified the Name

6. Word of words, measure of all measures
Blessed is the Name, the Name be blessed
Written on my heart in burning letters
Thats all I know, I cannot read the rest

7. I've heard the soul unfolds in the chambers of its longing
and the bitter liquor sweetens in the hammered cup
All the ladders of the night are fallen
Only darkness now to lift the longing up

8. Word of words, measure of all measures
Blessed is the Name, the Name be blessed
Written on my heart in burning letters
Thats all I know I cannot read the rest

There you have it. Stunningly beautiful. Hamaveen yaveen (let the wise understand).

A few thoughts on the images in the song: In both Jewish and Christian mysticism the Exodus symbolizes the salvation of the individual soul (verses 1 and 2). This is a more central metaphor for Christians since Jesus' death and resurrection is closely linked in the New Testament to the symbolism and inner meaning of Passover. "The Name" is itself a name of God and translates "Hashem", the usual way of referring to God among Jews. The Torah itself is also considered a "name" of God, sometimes said to be written in flaming letters (verse 3). In Jeremiah the promised "new covenant" will be written on the heart (verse 3). In the New Testament Jesus shows his wounds to "doubting Thomas" who then believes that Jesus has in fact come bodily back from the dead and is The Lord. This is also after Jesus' body is broken on the cross, an act Jesus foresaw and described with the word "broken" (verse 4). ""Unifying the Name" is a mystical goal of Jewish practice and refers 1) to the coming of the Messiah and the healing of the world; 2; to there being only one name under which God is known and 3) the unification of the shekhinah and God, or the unification of the soul of Israel/soul of creation with its Creator (verse 5).

I would not want to pin this song down to one clear meaning. I do get the sense that it is about coming to a relationship with God and finding his name written on his heart, even if in many ways he lives in a "sweet unknowing" which leaves many things not understood. It does seem like this has been a liberating passage for Cohen (out of Egypt) and that all of this may in some way be connected to contemplating Jesus' life and teachings as expressions of God as well. It is tempting to read more into the poem but out of respect for Cohen and the mystery and beauty of the the poem-song I will stop there. My point here is not to argue that Cohen is a closet messianic Jew. I do think though that Jesus is a presence in his thoughts and this is a provocative and interesting song melding Jewish and Christian imagery into a beautiful song of praise to the Name.

Here is the lovely quote from Cohen on Jesus:

"I’m very fond of Jesus Christ. He may be the most beautiful guy who walked the face of this earth. Any guy who says "Blessed are the poor. Blessed are the meek" has got to be a figure of unparallelled generosity and insight and madness…A man who declared himself to stand among the thieves, the prostitutes and the homeless. His position cannot be comprehended. It is an inhuman generosity. A generosity that would overthrow the world if it was embraced because nothing would weather that compassion. I’m not trying to alter the Jewish view of Jesus Christ. But to me, in spite of what I know about the history of legal Christianity, the figure of the man has touched me."

Leonard Cohen (1988), from "Leonard Cohen in His Own Words" by Jim Devlin

Monday, 22 September 2014

The Serpent In The Wilderness- a Jewish Insight

In John 3:14 Jesus references one of the strangest stories in the Bible and applies it to himself: 

And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up (ESV).

The "lifting up" here clearly refers to Jesus's crucifixion. It is a well-known Johannine paradox that Jesus' sacrifice on the cross is presented as the exaltation and glorification of the Son. But what is the story of the serpent in the wilderness, and why does Jesus mention this story?

In Numbers 21 the people of Israel grumble once again against Moses and God. The sin of their faithlessness and ingratitude is exacerbated by the great signs and wonders they have been directly exposed to. As Rabbis have explained to me, Israel in the dessert is treated very harshly by God's justice because of the depth of sin needed to grumble, complain, rebel, doubt and stray to idols when they have themselves seen the parting of the Red Sea, the pillars of cloud and fire, and the exodus itself!

In this instance God responds by sending a plague of serpents of fire who bite the Israelites and make them painfully (and terminally) ill. Serpents of fire are a motif in ancient middle eastern sacred art and were some kind of spirit being (of a similar type to the seraphim in Ezekiel's vision, which were not angels of the type in the European imaginaire but winged serpents, probably having bodies of flame, as scholars of ancient middle eastern religion have shown). The burning serpents are therefore a kind of spirit being sent by God to punish the Israelites.

The story only gets stranger when Moses resolves the problem by following an instruction from God to make a bronze serpent (which would perhaps look firy in the burning sun of the desert) for the Israelites to gaze at and be cured. This object was actually preserved by the Israelites and later ended up becoming a focus of idolatrous worship (2 Kings 18:4). 

Why does Jesus reference this story? One relatively simple explanation that lies ready to hand is the analogy with Jesus' crucifixion. Just as the ill Israelites in the dessert gazed at the serpent hung on the cross "and lived" so those sick with sin gaze at Jesus hung on the cross and live.  It has also been pointed out that serpents represent sin in the Bible (Genesis 3:15) and Jesus "became sin" on the cross (2 Corinthians 5:10). 

I think all of this is correct, but I recently came across another insight I wanted to share in a fascinating book by Rabbi Itzhak Shapira (The Return of the Kosher Pig). In order to understand R' Shapira's insight, we need first to understand the ancient Jewish practice of gematria. 

Gematria is a type of Biblical exegesis which relies on a curious feature of Hebrew. In Hebrew there are no numbers. Hebrew letters are themselves numbers, so that aleph= 1, bet=2, etc.....

This means that any Hebrew word can also be read as a series of numbers. It is fairly common for Rabbis to use this fact to fish surprising insights out of the Bible by translating words into numbers and then seeing what other words or phrases contain the same numerical value. A popular example is the gematria of the divine name YHVH. 

The numerical value of YHVH is 26, which it is often pointed out can be reached by adding the words echad (one, which equals 13) and ahavah (love, which also equals 13) together. As a side note, it is interesting that 1 Corinthians 13 contains 13 verses on love (13). 

One can see how this kind of thing can get easily out of hand (and it does) yet sometimes insights gained through gematria can be quite illuminating and surprising.  

Take the serpent. The Hebrew word for serpent, nahash, has a gematria of 358. This is the same as the gematria of the Hebrew word mashiach, or Messiah. Jesus avoids identifying himself as the Messiah directly throughout the Gospels, but a gematric translation of Jesus' words could be that the Messiah must be lifted up, hung on wood before the world, in order to give the lost life. Did Jesus intend this reading? What I find exciting about Rabbi Shapira's insight is that it is plausible that he did. Gematria is very old in the Jewish tradition. Even leaving aside for a moment the fact that God obviously knows gematria, my point here is that a 1st century Jew could be expected to know it. This means that Rabbi Shapira's insight may give us another insight, small but precious, into Jesus' mind. 

Wednesday, 17 September 2014

What is Rosh Hashanah?

A compelling argument that before the Rabbis transformed it RH was a remembrance of the acceptance if the covenant at Sinai:

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

The Faith of Abraham: Isaac, CS Lewis and Kierkegaard

The story of Abraham and Isaac, known as the Akedat Yitzhak (binding of Isaac), or Akedah in Jewish tradition, has long haunted the imaginations and consciences of Jews and Christians. The Torah recounts in suspenseful, harrowing prose God's request to Abraham that he slaughter his beloved son Isaac as a ritual sacrifice. Abraham famously acquiesces and takes Isaac up Mt. Moriah to a makeshift altar. He is stopped by an angel of God at the last moment. Do not stretch out your hand against the child, the angel says, you have passed the test.

What exactly is the test? How could God ask such a thing? How could Abraham agree? Are we supposed to applaud Abraham for the seemingly horrifying willingness to kill his own son? In the days of ISIS and other forms of religious violence across the religious spectrum these questions gain a new urgency. I want to suggest that the point of this story is somewhat different than most of us take it to be, and that there is still something important to learn from it 3,ooo years or so on from the events it purports to describe.

First bear with me while we reread the story.

Genesis 22

Some time later God tested Abraham. He said to him, "Abraham!"

"Here I am," he replied.

2 Then God said, "Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you."

3 Early the next morning Abraham got up and loaded his donkey. He took with him two of his servants and his son Isaac. When he had cut enough wood for the burnt offering, he set out for the place God had told him about. 4 On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place in the distance. 5 He said to his servants, "Stay here with the donkey while I and the boy go over there. We will worship and then we will come back to you."

6 Abraham took the wood for the burnt offering and placed it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. As the two of them went on together, 7 Isaac spoke up and said to his father Abraham, "Father?"

"Yes, my son?" Abraham replied.

"The fire and wood are here," Isaac said, "but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?"

8 Abraham answered, "God himself will provide (adonai yireh) to the lamb for the burnt offering, my son." And the two of them went on together.

9 When they reached the place God had told him about, Abraham built an altar there and arranged the wood on it. He bound his son Isaac and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then he reached out his hand and took the knife to slay his son. 11 But the angel of the Lord called out to him from heaven, "Abraham! Abraham!"

"Here I am," he replied.

12 "Do not lay a hand on the boy," he said. "Do not do anything to him. Now I know that you revere God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son."

13 Abraham looked up and there in a thicket he saw a ram caught by its horns. He went over and took the ram and sacrificed it as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called that place The Lord Will Provide (Adonai Yireh). And to this day it is said, "On the mountain of the Lord it will be provided."

Growing up in a Jewish context I was told that this story has two main points: 1) Abraham's incredible faith in God; and 2) God's lesson that Israel was not to sacrifice its children in religious ceremonies, unlike the tribes that Israel would later dispossess in the land of Canaan. I agree that these two points are among the lessons of the story. But they still leave many questions which Jewish and Christian thinkers have struggled with.

Kierkegaard famously opens his masterpiece Fear and Trembling with several re-imaginings of the story. What really happened? In one harrowing version Kierkegaard imagines Abraham indeed carrying Isaac up the mountain but before drawing the knife confessing to Isaac that he, Abraham, is in fact a fraud- an idolater and a violent man, and he intends to sacrifice Isaac to an idol. Better he not believe such a thing true of God and believe me evil instead, Abraham reasons.

In some Jewish versions the Rabbis notice that Abraham is described returning from the mountain but Isaac is not mentioned. He remained alone on the mountain, scarred by what happened and unwilling to descend, say some. Others, more shockingly: Abraham did kill him.

Mainstream Jewish tradition has always affirmed Abraham's virtuousness in the story, though the horror of it continued to surface in Jewish midrash (exegesis). As an old man Isaac was blind because His eyes were weakened by the sight of the angel that saved him. Or: His eyes were ruined by tears shed because his father was willing to sacrifice him.

Surely in all of our imaginings the shadow that haunts us is this: how could Abraham have been willing to sacrifice his son, and what kind of faith is this willing to do such a thing? Is this faith actually commendable? Let's look at the story in more detail.

God calls Abraham personally and unequivocally. Abraham responds: Hineni!, "Here I am!" a phrase which in Hebrew suggests total availability. At this point in his life Abraham has shown himself to have deep faith in God. God has been at times inscrutable and God's time frame in delivering promises has tested Abraham's trust, but Abraham has trusted and has thus far followed God's voice, and his trust has proven trustworthy.

God opens without preamble to a shocking request: Take your son, your only one, whom you love, Isaac.....God's wording is strange. Why does he not just say "take Isaac"? God's wording bears within it explicit reference to the intense meaning of Isaac for Abraham. Isaac is his son (his first son Ishmael is lost to him now). Isaac is his "only one", his only son, who carries the whole weight of Abraham's mission into the future. Whom you love. Isaac is not just the bearer of Abraham's legacy; Abraham dearly loves him.

Why does God speak this way? It is as if he is affirming Abraham's feelings and signalling that He understands them. I think God speaks this way, counter-intuitive as it might at first seem, to evoke Abraham's trust. In other words, at the moment that supremely tests Abraham's faith he speaks in such a way as to simultaneously support it. As we shall see, it is essential that Abraham be reminded of what we could call the humane nature of God.

Most amazing is Abraham's response to the request: early the next morning Abraham woke up and loaded his donkey. Abraham indeed responds with trust. What, though, is the exact nature of that trust? Does Abraham believe that whatever God ordains is good, and so he must comply? Is Abraham's trust a simple submission to God's inscrutable but always authoritative will? That was the way the text was presented to me as a child, and I think it is a very common reading. I also think it is wrong. Is this not the same Abraham who argued with God over the punishment of Sodom? The same Abraham who called out the challenge, will not the judge of the world deal justly?

I believe the text itself tells us the nature of Abraham's trust in the next harrowing moment in the story, surely one of the most spine tingling in all religious literature.

Abraham and Isaac proceed up the mountain together alone. Isaac seems to intuit that something strange is going on. Perhaps Abraham's hand trembles. Perhaps Isaac has heard stories of Canaanites who offer their children as sacrifices. Father? he asks.

Yes, my son?

The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for the burnt offering?

Abraham's answer holds the key to the whole story. YHVH himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, he replies. Adonai yireh, he literally says, God will see to it.

When I was a child I thought this answer was ambiguous and meant only to reassure Isaac. It wasn't until I read Yoram Hazony's discussion of it (in The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture) that the scales fell from my eyes. Hazony argues simply that Abraham is here saying exactly what he means. God will see to it. Abraham does not believe that YHVH will actually require him to sacrifice Isaac. This is likewise why Abraham explicitly tells his servants not just to wait, but says, "we will return to you."

To believe that YHVH will in the end truly ask that heinous deed of Abraham would contradict everything Abraham believes about Him. Abraham's trust is not just about trusting in God. It is about trusting in God's character. The point of the monotheism of Israel is not just that there is one God. It is not a religion finally about the nature of divine authority- about its singularity. Judaism is not a numbers game. Israel's monotheism is the belief that the universe is ruled by one good God.

The fact that what is central to Abraham's trust is his trust in God's character is proven by his reaction when God does indeed send a ram in Isaac's place. Abraham names the spot to commemorate the wonder of what has happened. He does not name it "test passed." He names it, "God will see to it." That is the central meaning of what has happened to Abraham: He was right. Right about God's character. Right about God's justice. Right about God's promises and faithfulness.

The test that YHVH set for Abraham is significantly different than we might have thought. It is not in the final analysis a test of Abraham's submissiveness. It is a test of Abraham's faith: its nature and its object. It is as if God is speaking through the test to Abraham, and he is asking the question, Do you know me?

God is not interested in mere submission. What God wants is for Abraham to know His heart. God does not want Abraham just to trust Him, but to trust Him for the right reasons. God wants Abraham to know who He is trusting. In the story of the Akedah God does not just test the nature of Abraham's faith, He is also vindicates and reveals His own character.

Imagine that you wake one night to find your house on fire. You grab your sleeping infant and turn around to find your wife trapped in a part of the room that is becoming engulfed in flames. "Hand me the baby!", she yells.

Your reaction will tell us everything about your opinion of your wife. If you trust her with your life (and the life of your baby) you will hand over the baby to her even though it seems that this is a homicidal act. So you do, and she then passes the baby out the window into the arms of waiting firemen you couldn't see. 

If you believe your wife to be irrational or even delusional you will not pass the baby to her. Your trusting aquiescence, or lack of it, tells us about your understanding of her character and your consequent faith in her (or lack of). This is the meaning of the last line of the story of the Akedah: now I know that you revere YHVH, because you have not withheld your only son from me.

In CS Lewis' The Final Battle a cunning ape named Shift convinces a gullible, weak donkey named Puzzle to dress up like Aslan the lion, the spiritual ruler and creator of Narnia. The Narnians are well aware that Aslan is "not a tame lion" so when he begins making questionable, even violent requests many Narnians go along with it. Their instincts rebel and they feel sick, but who, after all, can understand the inscrutable Aslan?

Lewis brilliantly depicts the trap of perceiving God as above morality, a God of absolute power beyond good and evil. If God is not "tame", i.e. does not conform to human demands and expectations, then who are we to judge his actions? In the end God may request anything of us, which means that his "representatives" may request anything of us. 

Kierkegaard's analysis approaches the truth of the story but also obscures it. In Fear and Trembling Kierkegaard correctly asserts that Abraham surrenders his son, his family obligations, his ethics and even his very self in a transcendent trust of God. His brilliant insight is that Abraham does not do this merely as a "knight of resignation" who acquiesces out of his sense of nothingness before God. Abraham acts as a "knight of faith" who against all rational evidence trusts that since God has promised him Isaac God will deliver- Isaac will somehow be returned to him in this world.  

Kierkegaard is right in thinking that the nature of Abraham's faith transcends normal reasoning and is based in a trust that he will not lose Isaac because God has promised him Isaac and will not himself be unfaithful. He is wrong though in considering this a "suspension of the ethical" or a trust which is entirely irrational or absurd. This line of thinking actually obscures the nature of Abraham's faith as routed in an apprehension of the supremely ethical nature of God.

The Akedah teaches us about what Abraham believed of God's character, and what God wanted him to believe. The point is not submission, not obedience beyond reason. Abraham trusts God not just because He is God, but because Abraham knows God. Abraham has seen God's character and believes in Him as a God of grace and justice. Abraham trusts that God will not ask him to do something unjust, capricious, or immoral. If it appears that that is what God is asking than the reality must be otherwise, and Abraham complies and trusts, waiting to be proven right. God Himself will see to the lamb for the burnt offering, son. And he does. Abraham proves the nature of his faith, and God proves the nature of His faithfulness. The kind of faith that God wants is not simple obedience to pure authority, but knowing trust in His goodness. That is one of he reasons that God went to such great lengths to show His character to humanity in the life and death of his Son.